Welcome to the 13th Floor

About this time every year, theme parks around the country get a monthlong reprieve from the off-season as they re-theme themselves for Halloween. No one wants to float down a lazy river in October, but being chased by zombies through a maze is another story. Locally, Circus Circus is making the most of scare season with two attractions that promise to terrify patrons.

Circus Circus has been in the Halloween business since 2003, when it leased Adventuredome to Jason Egan’s Egan Productions, which transforms the five-acre venue into a carnival of frights called Fright Dome. Haunted houses themed around movies like Saw and My Bloody Valentine do their best to petrify paying customers. Sometimes it works too well.

“I’ve sent grown men out wetting their pants,” Egan says.

This year, Egan has added something new to the mix, to give families something a little less intense. In seeking inspiration, he drew on one of the native peculiarities of Circus Circus. It is one of the very few hotels in town with a 13th floor, which gave Egan the idea for a spooky tour called “The 13th Floor Experience.” The phobic fun starts at the elevator bank across from the buffet, where a creepily costumed elevator operator whisks ticket-holders up to the eponymous floor of the Casino Tower. Once up there, guests are escorted through the halls and into several of the guestrooms, each of which has a different frightening panorama. With flashing strobe lights, actors menacingly lurching about, and blood-curdling narration from a guide, it’s a surreal step away from the Strip.

At the end, guests are shepherded back down to ground level, temporarily terrified but satisfied.

One recent visitor from Phoenix, Jessica, 8, begged her parents to take her on the tour, even though the management suggests children under 12 stay away. Even though she shrieked with terror at some of the most frightful moments, she loved the experience.

“It was good,” she said with a smile. “Even when it was scary.”

Even in a recession, horror is good business. Despite the downturn in just about everything in Las Vegas over the past three years, Fright Dome’s attendance has continued to rise. On a typical Friday, Fright Dome averages about 6,500 guests in its five hours of operation (the translucent pink dome it sits in precludes daylight ghoulishness), and the 13th Floor Experience draws an additional 500 to 800 horror fans.

That’s good news for Circus Circus, good news for Egan and even better news for the 300 actors the two attractions employ, along with a host of security, box office and support personnel.

Together, Fright Dome and the 13th Floor Experience take about 11 months of preparation. In a perfect world, Egan would have more, but he’s doing quite well with the time he’s given. There’s lots to get done: partnership deals to ink with sponsors as diverse as Rockstar Energy Drink and Lionsgate Entertainment; attraction concepts to develop; fabrication of the attractions themselves; and hiring those 300 actors and their supporting cast.

For Egan, hiring actors is one of the most critical parts of the entire operation.

“You can have the best set designs in the world but if you don’t have phenomenal actors, it just won’t work,” he says. “We go through numerous interviews in the process of hiring our team to make sure that when they are given a role, it suits them and brings out every quality in their acting abilities.”

When Egan started putting together Fright Dome in 2003, October was one of Adventuredome’s worst months. Now, it’s one of the best. And he isn’t done yet. On his wish list, Egan would like to see a film company partner with Egan Productions to give the 13th Floor Experience the kind of well-known movie theme that his Saw haunted house in Fright Dome enjoys. He’s also open to the possibility of a reality show that chronicles the show behind the show, including some of the “20, 22 hour days” that he puts into panicking his guests nightly.

The recession has given Las Vegas casinos the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Judging by their continued growth, Egan’s Circus Circus horror houses will be a part of Vegas Octobers for quite a while to come.